Personal Mythology: The Butterfly Myths
WHEN I WAS THIRTY-SEVEN, my first marriage came apart. And like many who find themselves so shipwrecked, I was forced to confront the many demon castaways who had been holed up amidships all along.
I was fortunate to find a good therapist, one who knew I had to take at least some responsibility for what had happened. When I mentioned, oh by the way, my mother left when I was eleven, we began to look closely at the role this abandonment may have played in my fractured relationships with women.
With her help and encouragement, I began a series of long-distance phone calls back to Ohio: conversations with my now estranged mother that might help me recover something of the past. But it was as much about helping me better understand what her own childhood had been like. The goal was not to excuse her for leaving, or let her off the hook for the choices she’d made, but only to get a more balanced picture of how things came to be.
At that point in time, my mother and I had already been reconciled for fifteen years. But our separation for almost as many–from the time I was eleven until I was in my twenties–had an unexpected effect: somehow that gap in our relationship made it easier for her to talk. For me, the ease with which she did so was a bit of a shock, as she would share intimate details that I considered almost inappropriate. Before long I realized she had come to consider me more of a friend. And less of a son.
I knew then that I had indeed lost my mother forever. This was deeply painful to me, but it also meant smoother sailing for the journey I was now on. This was a journey to get to know her better, and in turn to know myself, because it enabled her to speak about her history with a frankness and openness that may not have been possible for her otherwise.
In one conversation my mother asked if what she’d done in leaving my sister and me as children might have contributed in any way to my troubled relationships with women. I lied and told her no. The truth is, I felt that if she was asking out of guilt, she must be carrying enough already, without me adding to it by putting skin on the bones of these ghosts. And if she honestly didn’t realize that she’d hurt us, what good would it do to tell her now? I don’t think she could have changed anything. Even if she’d wanted to. Which she obviously didn’t.
So, a little at a time, she began to recount the story of her own, troubled childhood. As if trading memories of hardscrabble early days, Depression Era Folklore, across the back fence with a neighbor, she told me things I’d never been told. She talked about her relationship with her own mother, Rose, and how the combined stresses of those dark years and my grandfather’s drinking almost ripped the family asunder. She remembered Rose dragging the four of them–her, her brother, and their two sisters–from bar to bar, chasing down my grandfather for grocery money. When Rose had finally had enough and left (at least for the time being), there was nowhere for them to go except the dirt-floor cellar of a relative’s home. There the five slept in one bed and used a toilet that sat out in the open, with little privacy for Rose or her children.
Over time, as I learned more more and more about the seeds that would grow and blossom to become my thorny life, the calamitous events of my memories seemed more understandable, perhaps even inevitable. As I continued to meet with my therapist, she helped me to see that this woman, my mother, had learned how to do the job from someone who had a hard time with it herself. Eventually there came a shift in my views, from a picture of my mother as detached and selfish to the picture of a woman who felt she had no other choice but to act out her fear and pain in the way she did. And so I came to realize that her decision to leave that September day when I was eleven wasn’t an isolated event in our history together. It was instead the defining nature of our relationship. She had been abandoning me all along. From the get-go. You might even say it was her parenting style.
And so, with more and more revelation, I began getting more and more clarity. As if coming out of a fog, I began to understand the nature of the stories I’d been telling to myself to help explain my own life. I had in fact been creating my own personal myth0logy.
But these myths were not lies or fabrications in the sense of how we most often use the word today, but myths in the classical sense. These tales had evolved inside my own mind as a way of understanding life. They were embedded with greater truth than the facts themselves. Greater truth than I would have at first been able to bear.
My first accounts took the form of collages. For some reason I was drawn to the wings of butterflies, which I learned I could purchase from biology supply companies. They seemed an elegant counterpoint to old, black-and-white photographs. Before I realized the deeper implications, I had created a pantheon of winged goddesses, one for every woman I believed had flitted in and out of my life, beginning with my mother. (She I portrayed as a beautiful somnambulist, wandering about aimlessly, wreaking havoc.)
That tip-of-the-iceberg art came nearly twenty years ago, and the myth telling continues in the books I’m writing now, all of it serving to hold up a mirror, to gain a clearer picture of who I am. It is very strange, to see that in addition to telling them to others, I am telling these myths to myself. It’s like I’m telling a fairy tale to a child, that he might know not only of the beast that lives in the woods but also of the beast that lives inside himself.
And like any myth teller, I am only just beginning to understand for myself what these stories mean. I am only just beginning, at this late point, to hope I may some day be able to say a truth.
To go to the beginning of my personal account, telling the true life story of my family and the events that have lead to my novel series, The Butterfly Myths, click here. To join my list and receive a free download of each volume in the Butterfly Myths series, set to begin release in 2017, submit your email address below.
Danae by Titian (1490–1576)